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The Most Insanely Cruel -- and Zeitgeist-Savvy -- Quiz-Show of All Time

12/29/2010 06:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a way, you have already seen it.

It's called The Million Dollar Money Drop, and it takes the studio-game-show-as-Roman-spectacle to a fresh extreme: though it features the same old tired stagecraft of twenty other shows -- those same endless, milk-the-fake-tension pauses between question and answer, the same nitwit musical cues -- all jagged violins and rumbling kettle-drums -- and the same epilepsy-inducing studio lights, with a fourth-tier comic as too-hearty MC -- though it's slavishly derivative and ferociously corny, it has the guts to be true to the spirit of today:

Players start with a fortune... and then steadily lose it.

On the two shows I watched, at least, the couples lost the entire million. That much was predictable once you saw the players, who have clearly not been chosen for either street-smarts or book-larnin'. No -- it's how they lose the million dollars that breaks your heart, and reminds you of something else -- something you saw earlier in the evening on TV, perhaps...

The S&M fun all starts with Kevin Pollak -- wearing a sickly grin that seems to say c'mon, gimme a break, I've got Rogaine bills to pay -- shovelling a cool million, in hundreds, in front of terrifyingly wholesome American couples. Coached to whoop and trade embarassingly bad high-fives right from the jump, the couples become so unhinged at the sight of that pile of mean green, and by the ritual incantation of that phrase -- a million dollars -- that, as they run their fingers across the surface of the cash, you want to turn away, as if you've stumbled on some weird fetish web-site... and you know that, in their craving, is the seed of the grief to come.

Again, in the manner of other current game-shows, the questions are either stupid, random, vaguely smutty, or all three. This is not, um, College Bowl or something. In the early rounds, there are four possible answers, and the couples have to place stacks of hundreds on lit-up answer-panels, wagering "their" fortune while trying to fend off this horrific odor of loss and decay hovering in the studio air.

And of course they lose! Some lose because they've clearly not been very curious about the outside world, some lose because they're not that smart, but all lose because they're suffering extreme oxygen-deprivation due to cash-induced hysteria. Knowing in their guts its not theirs to keep, their faces become contorted as if by 3 Gs of sheer money-lust, and their peppy "we got this!" shouts become ever more hollow under Kevin Pollak's puzzled gaze, as they are cruelly offered many chances to second-guess themselves: "We call it the 'Quick Change' period," Pollak intones, with much gravity; "you have thirty seconds... to change your answer."

And of course they do change it, and of course they are wrong, and the lit-up panel with the stacks of hundreds on top of it gives way; and the stacks of hundreds plunge down into a deep, dark chasm -- that dark chasm from which no traveller returns.

As they drop hundreds of thousands on bad guesses, they're griefstruck -- but what's truly sickening is the way they're forced to act -- and feel -- wildly grateful for whatever last scraps of cash they're still clinging to. "We've still got forty thousand!" the wife cries, heartsick, her dream stillborn inside her. You wish the best for her. And then that last, lit-up panel gives way, and the last stacks of hundreds go plunging down...

By now we have seen much too much. We have seen nice folks transformed by the tactile presence of cash into full-blown Kafka insects, whipped by money-power onto their backs, feebly waving their feelers into the air. "Feed me... feed... me..." We want to look away.

But still, the nature of this spectacle -- the precise geometry of its cruelty -- keeps reminding us of something else...

Yes -- Fox has given us the first game-show of broken hopes! It's the first game-show to reflect what we're seeing on the evening news: tax-bills that start out to repeal insane breaks for the super-rich and wind up extending them instead. Health-care "reform" that starts out bold and is then craftily whittled away until the insurers win. Promises to close Guantanamo that are always, somehow, deferred.

The Million Dollar Money Drop. You don't need to watch it. In fact, I'd strongly suggest you don't.

You see enough of it on the evening news.